Like many startups, this Estonian-based company began as a lean, bootstrapped venture fueled by passion, not piles of cash. But their app quickly gained popularity through word of mouth, strong ratings in the Google and Apple app stores, and accolades like Google’s “Best App of the Year” and Apple’s “Editor’s Choice” award. As of writing, Drops has an average rating of 4.8 stars (out of 5) and a whopping 54.4K total ratings in the Apple App Store!
All this buzz has not gone unnoticed, and the Norwegian company Kahoot! acquired Drops for $50 million in 2020!
This is a very impressive origin story, but this is a blog about languages, not start-ups. So the question remains:
Does Drops actually work?
Or put another way, will Drops help you get fluent in a language?
This is precisely the question I will answer in this post.
Drops Languages & Topics
The Drops app currently includes lessons in a whopping 45 languages, including: Ainu, American English, Arabic, Bosnian, Brazilian Portuguese, British English, Cantonese, Castilian Spanish, Croatian, Danish, Dutch, Esperanto, Estonian, European Portuguese, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hawaiian, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Igbo, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Maori, Mexican Spanish, Norwegian, Persian, Polish, Russian, Samoan, Sanskrit, Serbian, Swahili, Swedish, Tagalog, Thai, Turkish, Vietnamese, Yoruba
Each of these languages includes approximately 2,000 vocabulary words each, which are organized into various topics, including:
- Food & Drinks
- Travel Talk
- Workplace Talk
- Nature & Animals
- People & Relationships
- Health & Wellness
- Transportation & Vehicles
- Home & Garden
- City & Shops
- Business & Tech
- Fashion & Clothing
- Fun & Recreation
- Science & Wisdom
- Sports & Fitness
- Society & Politics
- Time & Date
- Climate Awareness
- Verbs & Phrases
Whenever I review a language learning resource, I focus on assessing the following criteria:
- Does it provide the 3 essential ingredients of effective language learning: 1) passion, 2) comprehension, and 3) repetition?
- Does it allow you to practice the 4 language skills directly: 1) listening, 2) speaking, 3) reading, and 4) writing?
No one language learning tool perfectly provides all of these, and some deliver the goods in on one criterion while falling short on the others.
So how does Drops measure up?
I’ve been putting the Drops app through the paces for over a year now, and am confident I can now give it an honest, informed review. Below you will find my nuanced opinion as a linguist, learner, and teacher.
Side Note: Far too many language resource reviews out there are based on only superficial evaluations. This is not fair to you the learner or to the dozens of people who have poured their lives into creating the tools. So I do my best to thoroughly test and vet resources before reviewing them.
The 3 Ingredients
Does Drops make language learning more fun? Does it allow you to follow your unique interests?
Like other highly gamified apps (e.g. Duolingo), Drops includes a number of intelligent gaming features that cleverly leverage—or perhaps I should say “hijack”—human psychology and physiology to keep you showing up each day.
- Time Limits: Each Drops session lasts for just 5 minutes. This short timeframe has many advantages: 1) it helps reduce friction and procrastination, 2) it reduces overwhelm, 3) it increases retention (since your brain has less total information to process), and 4) it creates a sense of urgency (“I wonder how many reviews I can cram into these 5 minutes?!”). While you certainly won’t get fluent in a language with just 5 minutes a day, this can at least act as a good “anchor habit” or ”minimum daily habit” for busy learners.
💡 Pro Tip: You can extend the time limit if you upgrade to a premium account.
- Streaks: Each day you show up and complete your 5-minute Drops session, you get a nice satisfying green circle that day on your “streaks calendar.” For many learners, streaks are a surprisingly powerful tool for increasing consistency. And the longer your streak gets, the stronger your desire to keep it going. The one downside of streaks is that it can lead to unhealthy all-or-nothing thinking in which a single missed day leads you to quit completely. Fortunately, Drops gets around this psychological trap by allowing you to save your streak so long as you don’t miss two days in a row. As habit expert James Clear puts it in Atomic Habits:
“Never miss twice. If I miss one day, I try to get back into it as quickly as possible. Missing one workout happens, but I’m not going to miss two in a row. Maybe I’ll eat an entire pizza, but I’ll follow it up with a healthy meal. I can’t be perfect, but I can avoid a second lapse. As soon as one streak ends, I get started on the next one. The first mistake is never the one that ruins you. It is the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows. Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit.”
- Sound Effects & Bright Colors: Though perhaps a less obvious element of gamification, Drops’ use of sound effects and color help make the app more pleasurable to use.
It’s also important here to mention that Drops is organized around a number of specific topics. This allows learners to focus on just the sets of vocabulary that are relevant to their interests, needs, level, and goals. For example, beginners can focus on basic words like pronouns, numbers, colors, etc., while more advanced learners can dig into science, technology, politics, etc.
❤️🔥 Passion Rating: ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ (4 out of 5 Ninja Stars)
Does Drops help you understand the language? Is there a clear context?
When it comes to comprehensibility, Drops is a double-edged sword…
On the one hand, Drops’ use of iconography and animations helps create a direct connection to meaning without having to rely on translations (though you can turn on translations if desired).
💡 Pro Tip: Occasionally, you may be unsure exactly what word a given icon is trying to convey. In such cases, simply tap on the icon and it will reveal a translation. You can also turn on the “Native Assist” setting to always show translations after you submit your answer.
On the other hand, Drops presents most words in isolation without context, which I usually frown upon. In general, it’s far better to learn new vocabulary within complete phrases and sentences to see how they are used, which other words they tend to come before or after, etc.
That said, for absolute beginners, learning in context can add an extra layer of complexity and difficulty since you won’t yet know the other words being used. In such cases, the context won’t be very contextual.
For that reason, I think that Drops can be particularly helpful for absolute beginners trying to gain familiarity with common vocabulary before moving onto context-based resources.
🧠 Comprehension Rating: ✶ ✶ ✶ (3 out of 5 Ninja Stars)
Does Drops help you repeat words and phrases in an intelligent way? Does it used spaced repetition?
Many apps only show you a given word once or twice per learning session, which does not provide nearly enough exposure or repetition to create robust memories.
Drops, on the other hand, shows you each new word numerous times during each 5-minute session. But it helps keeps things more interesting (and provides more well-rounded learning) by variously quizzing you on meaning, spelling, pronunciation, etc. using a variety of exercise types (drag and drop, matching, spelling, etc.).
💡 Pro Tip: If you already know a new word that drops down onto the screen, drag it up to mark it as known. That way you won’t have to waste your time with unnecessary repetitions.
While the exact repetition intervals used in Drops are not visible or adjustable (like they are in a spaced repetition app like Anki), the app does use your performance to adjust which words are shown when.
Drops organizes each session around a specific topic, so most of the words you see will be limited to that domain. However, you will occasionally see words from other topics that you previously struggled with, which is spaced repetition at work!
🔁 Repetition Rating: ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ (4 out of 5 Ninja Stars)
The 4 Language Skills
1) Direct Listening Practice
While many language apps simply leverage automated text-to-voice technology to add audio, Drops has gone to the trouble of recording authentic native speaker audio for each and every word. This is a big deal, especially for tonal languages like Mandarin Chinese or pitch-accent languages like Japanese.
💡 Pro Tip: Make sure to turn on “Listening Exercises” under settings (Profile > gear icon > Settings > Listening Exercise). For listening exercises, tap the head icon with the sound waves once to hear the word again and once again to hear it pronounced slowly.
However, since Drops only presents words in isolation (other than some common phrases), this is not exactly what I have in mind when I think of “direct listening practice.” For that, I am referring more to hearing complete sentences in authentic contexts: TV shows, movies, YouTube videos, podcasts, etc.
👂🏼Listening Rating: ✶ ✶ ✶ (3 out of 5 Ninja Stars)
2) Direct Speaking Practice
Drops does not include any speaking exercises or voice-to-text features, hence the low rating here. However, learning to speak is largely built on learning to listen. And the crystal-clear native speaker audio in the app at least helps you learn how words are pronounced.
🗣 Speaking Rating: ✶ (1 out of 5 Ninja Stars)
3) Direct Reading Practice
Like with listening, Drops doesn’t provide much in the way of direct reading practice due to the lack of context. But it does help you with spelling, which is certainly a foundational skill you need before moving onto authentic reading content.
📚 Reading Rating: ✶ ✶ (2 out of 5 Ninja Stars)
4) Direct Writing Practice
Drops is not really designed as a writing tool, but it will help a bit with strengthening your spelling skills and expanding your vocabulary.
💡 Pro Tip: Make sure to turn on “Writing Exercises” under settings (Profile > gear icon > Settings > Writing Exercise).
✍🏼 Writing Rating: ✶ ✶ (2 out of 5 Ninja Stars)
🥷 Overall Rating: ✶ ✶ ✶ (3 out of 5 Ninja Stars)
Overall, I think that Drops can be a useful addition to your language learning toolbox, especially for absolute beginners who need to learn basic vocabulary and more advanced learners who want to fill in some holes in specific topic areas.
In fact, the 4x U.S. Memory Champion Nelson Dellis used Drops to get pretty decent in Dutch in just one year!
But like with all language learning apps, they should act as a supplement to other more direct learning activities: